State’s tobacco cash helps smokers kick habit

Washington state has a better record than other states in using settlement money from tobacco companies for anti-smoking programs and health coverage for some children.

Still, about 40 percent of the money has been spent on programs that have nothing to do with public health.

Ten years ago, on Nov. 23, 1998, states ganged up on major tobacco companies by filing lawsuits blaming them for causing costly smoking-related illnesses paid for by public health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

To avoid drawn-out litigation, the companies agreed to pay $61.5 billion to the federal government with the money to be used for health programs and anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teenagers. In return, the tobacco companies won protection from similar future lawsuits.

In 46 states, however, an average of only about 30 percent of the money paid out between 2000 and 2006 has actually gone to health care, according to federal Government Accountability Office data analyzed by The Associated Press.

Less than 4 percent went to anti-smoking efforts.

In other states, the money has gone to items such as a museum in Alaska, carts and sprinklers at a golf course in New York and to the salary of a dogcatcher in Nebraska. It also has paid for jails and schools around the country.

Since the settlement, Washington state has received $1.6 billion in tobacco settlement money, according to Tim Church, spokesman for the state Department of Health. Of that, $920 million — 57.5 percent — has gone to health-related programs, he said.

“Certainly we put it to use to improve health, at least the majority of it,” he said.

Of that amount, $100 million has gone to tobacco prevention and cessation efforts, he said. That’s just 6 percent. Even so, health officials say they’ve seen positive changes.

In 2000, the state had the 20th lowest smoking rate in the nation; in 2007, it was the sixth lowest.

“We’ve seen smoking rates drop by about half among youth and by 25 percent among adults,” he said.

Of the $680 million that’s gone toward other things, most was a one-time lump payment that went into the state’s general fund in 2003, Church said. Then $32 million went to the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, to encourage research in biotech, health treatments and cures, he said.

The money spent on health went to the state’s Basic Health Plan, health insurance for low-income children and vaccines, in addition to anti-smoking programs, Church said.

The state expects to receive a total of $4 billion over the first 25 years of the settlement, he said.

The state distributes the tobacco prevention money to local agencies who in turn provide training and resources to schools and other groups, officials said.

In Snohomish County, the money goes to the Snohomish Health District, which has received up to $400,000 a year over the past several years, said Pam Wessel-Estes, the department’s program manager for tobacco prevention and control.

The health district has an equivalent of four-and-a-half employees who provide training and materials to schools and other groups, Wessel-Estes said. Some staff time, including for a part-time position recently added, goes toward enforcing the ban on smoking in indoor public places approved by voters in 2005, she said.

Education programs in schools, quit smoking programs and training for developing tobacco-free workplace policies are among the endeavors, Wessel-Estes said.

Tobacco use has dropped dramatically in the state, according to Church, and the percentage is roughly the same in Snohomish County, Wessel-Estes said.

In other states, once-falling teen smoking rates have now stagnated.

States defend the myriad ways they have spent their tobacco money, which is still being paid out in annual installments and is expected to total $294 billion over 25 years in today’s dollars. They note that no strings were attached to the settlement, and that anti-smoking campaigns do not cost billions.

“Our view was, that was money that we had to spend as a result of tobacco-related illnesses. This was paying us back for that,” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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